We all know that it’s wrong to overcharge anything beyond the Maximum Retail Price (MRP), but how many of us actually take up cudgels against anyone overcharging, refuse to pay up whether it’s a rupee or two and instead file a complaint against the shopkeeper? Not too many, which is why they get away with overcharging more often than not. But then, among the handful which takes umbrage at the overcharging are a few who’ve used the Right to Information to make that change and make it matter.   Pune-based Sanjay Shirodkar filed an RTI application seeking an explanation from the Mumbai International Airport Limited for the high price of bottled water at airports. MIAL went on to refuse the information saying it was a private company, not a public authority and was hence not liable to discuss what it did. Bringing the first private concern under the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI), a concurrent Central Information Commission ruling on the case declared that MIAL, owing to its benefiting from public concessions such as the waiver of a substantial stamp duty and functions on land leased cheaply from the Airports Authority, should be accountable under the RTI.  Similarly, the issue of domestic violence is suggested by most perpetrators even the police to be a ‘private’ matter and not public violence.  However, it has been argued that the range of corporates who utilise public resources – concessional land, tax benefits, waivers — in the name of public good — development and service — rather than in the name of private profit and institutionalised greed, are accountable for both. In one case which should inspire protestors, a victim of overcharging, not just refused to accept such exploitation and went to court, he demanded stern action against the seller…and got it. The order he received would surely make retailers think twice before overcharging consumers. The district consumer disputes redressal forum in Bharuch, Gujarat, not only asked the seller to refund the excess amount of Rs 22 charged but also pay Rs 5,000 as compensation to the consumer and Rs 1,000 as costs.  In addition, the seller was asked to pay Rs 1,50,000 to the consumer welfare fund. This was upheld by the Gujarat state consumer disputes redressal commission and also the national consumer disputes redressal commission. IshhwarLalJinabhai Desai had reportedly bought, on May 14, 2003, four bottles of Mirinda from Hotel NyayMandir located on National Highway Number 8. Despite the MRP on the bottle being Rs 12.50 according to which he should have been charged Rs 50 for the four bottles, he was asked to pay Rs 72.  So in his complaint filed before the district forum, he asked for a refund of the excess amount charged, besides compensation. In addition, he wanted the forum to direct the hotel to pay to a consumer association, the excess amount charged on soft drinks by the hotel in the previous three years.  Opposing this, the hotelier argued before the national commission that first and foremost, the additional amount was the service charge towards the facilities provided by the hotel.  Second, the hotel had put up a notice outside, specifying the cost of the soft drink and the service charge. So the complainant was aware of the price and had willingly bought it. The national commission said, for starters, there was no mention of any service charge in the receipt given to the consumer.  Also, in its appeal before the state commission, the hotelier had not said anything about the notice board. So the commission cannot examine any new grounds at the revision petition stage (Hotel NyayMandirvsIshwarLalJinabhai Desai, revision petition number 550 of 2006, decided on December 14, 2010). Restaurants and hotels quite delightfully choose to quote the March, 2006 case of the Federation of Hotels and Restaurants Association of India vs Union of India in which the Delhi High Court held that ‘charging prices for mineral water in excess of the MRP printed on the packaging, during the service of customers in hotels and restaurants does not violate any of the provisions of the Standards of Weights and Measures Act as this does not constitute a sale or transfer of these commodities by the hotelier or restaurateur to its customers.’ In the context of overcharging, it may be imperative to note that more than 500 Indian drug companies will have to collectively pay over Rs 4,000 crore in dues after a High Court recently shot down their petition challenging penalty notices sent by drug authorities for overcharging.  Special counsel for the government, GR Sharma had said companies will have to collectively pay Rs 4,000 crore - 5,000 crore, which includes an initial principal amount and interest. The department of pharmaceuticals sent notices to several drug companies in 1996 for selling bulk drugs at prices higher than those fixed by the government.  At that time, prices were governed by the Drug Price Control Order of 1979, which was repealed later. Judges PB Majmudar and RM Savant of the Bombay High Court, December last, dismissed the industry lobby body’s petition challenging the penalty notices. Concurrently, Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), on its part, has taken some measures to ensure passengers aren’t overcharged for food and that, in the event of it happening, registering a complaint isn’t too hard. They try to serve standard food products and proprietary articles such as packaged drinking water, biscuits and cold drinks etc., which have a printed MRP on them. Retailers are permitted to sell below the MRP but it’s an offence to charge anything above the MRP. What makes matters worse is that despite the law being clear on the issue, hotels and restaurants across the city with utter disregard, charge just what they feel like.  Look at the city’s cinema halls which continue to charge just what they feel like on bottled water despite the MRP being strictly lower than their selling price. “Look at our printed prices,” says a local single-screen cinema’s employee holding up a bottle of Aquafina against a board indicating ‘their’ price…well more than double its printed cost. Restaurants at Elephanta Caves, for instance, continue to charge blatantly beyond and above the MRP for almost all products. For foreigners and visitors to the island, registering a complaint means moving to mainland Mumbai and then filing a complaint with the Controller of Legal Metrology.  The procedure has been intentionally kept ambiguous for obvious reasons. Simply placing a board at the entrance of Elephanta Islands, informing all visitors to the Island to desist from paying anything beyond the MRP would easily inform all about the law and curb the practice. Ignorance of law is no excuse but then you can’t really expect foreigners to be aware of the local laws of the land…less so when just about every second person they encounter is an agent or a guide looking for that bit of commission.  The Controller could take things in his hands and put up a notice board on the Island prominently detailing the law and providing for guidelines and contact details in case of complaints.

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